Amy Chua is sparking controversy across the country — enraging, intriguing and inciting discussion over her recent bestselling book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” in which she reveals her strict parenting style.
Most parents want their children to reach their potential and become exceptionally successful, and Chua is no different. Most parents, however, may not take the same approach that the Yale law professor does with her children. She explains that, as a “Tiger Mother,” based on the traditional Chinese parenting style, she is uncompromising about her expectations for her children and pushes them to excel by adhering to a strict set of rules, and investing a substantial amount of time and effort enforcing them.
Although Chua has since denied that her book is a “how to” manual, but rather a memoir of her journey through parenthood — the book jacket presents itself as a parenting primer, with the heading, “How To Be A Tiger Mother.” One cannot help but think Chua has declared herself an expert.
In the book, she explains that she demands that her children get straight A’s in school, become accomplished musicians by playing either the piano or the violin, and refrain from playdates, sleepovers, watching television, and playing video games. For her, gold medals are the prize and silver is of no value.
When one of her daughters waffled in math, Chua tutored her, employing numerous practice tests for hours until her daughter became the “math kid.” She ridicules Western parents because she claims they “[would] get to have a glass of wine and go to yoga class,” while she would stay home, yelling at her kids about homework or practice. Apparently, she misses the fine line between positive parent involvement and over involvement.
Chua was fortunate to the extent that her daughters were capable of achieving the grades demanded. I would be wary of placing such inflated expectations on all children. Sometimes children fail — even with the child’s best efforts. It seems that parents who subscribe to Chua’s approach react to failure with horror and shame. In the face of failure, I prefer to help the child learn from the experience and foster the growth of future resilience. Parents are not just “fair weather fans.”
I believe it is the school’s job to educate my children, although I would supplement their learning from time to time. But it has never been my goal to homeschool my children, and fortunately or unfortunately, my recollection of math or science, beyond the fourth grade, is limited.
Diametrically opposed to Chua’s traditional Chinese approach is “Western parenting,” where the parent is sensitized to the self-esteem of the child and promotes a freedom of individual choice. Many parenting experts, like Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers,” have weighed in on the issue. Mogel is a strong proponent of teaching children self-reliance by allowing them to make mistakes and get grades that are not ideal. She believes that children need to experience failure to cultivate coping skills.
Another parenting author, Ayelet Waldman, criticizes Chua’s cookie-cutter approach, and advocates for a more individualized strategy for parenting.
Chua says she believes that when young children are allowed to choose their activities, they will invariably choose what is fun over what is productive, and that children sampling a myriad of activities without focusing on any one will lead to the them being proficient in nothing.
She overlooks both the fact that exploring may lead to the discovery of a hidden talent, as well as the fact that, at some juncture, learning to make choices is in itself a skill necessary for growth. She also presupposes that an enormous amount of practice will yield results.
She was fortunate that when it came to her children, that was the case. Some children do not have musical aptitude, but instead have latent art, athletic, or dramatic talent. Others may never excel at any extra-curricular activity. Childhood is the perfect time to try new activities. Granted, parents who over schedule their children are doing them a disservice in another manner, but there is a middle ground.
Many readers balked at Chua’s rejection of the homemade birthday cards her daughters presented to her, saying that they were not acceptable. She thought the cards evidenced a minimum amount of thought and effort. To her, it is not the “thought that counts.”
She is correct, in that many times children are self-absorbed and need to be directed so that they can learn to think of others. But she goes astray when she rates the card that is supposed to be her child’s offering to her. To many parents, the best cards are the ones that may not be the prettiest, so long as the child is giving from her heart and taking pride in her work.
Chua has also been reviled for calling her daughter “garbage” for talking back to her. She defended her comment, justifying it as a result of cultural differences. To be honest, I have told my children that I am allowed to speak to them in a harsher manner than they are allowed to speak to me, as we are not equals. Still, there is a limit to the language that is appropriate, and adults are supposed to set an example as to how to behave.
Child psychologists will tell parents to carefully target the child’s behavior for disapproval, and not the child herself. Even with this goal in mind, it is often difficult to temper one’s reaction to an incendiary situation and tailor one’s words so carefully.
Childhood should not be all about work and achievement — the mantle of adult responsibility forces that upon us soon enough. But even after acquiescing and allowing her daughter to play tennis, Chua was on automatic pilot, micromanaging the lessons behind her daughter’s back once she saw potential for successful competition. To her credit, she did not confront her with criticism, but to really let go, Chua would need to leave the training to trusted professionals and to her daughter’s desire to achieve.
Chua seems to be consistent in her focus, stressing not just the effort, but the results. She demands the best. She also believes in bringing pride to one’s family. Of course, neither of these things are bad. Still, though, one wonders who benefits from this: the parent or the child? Chua might say both — the parent is proud of the success and the child is encouraged by it. The flaw in this reasoning, beyond the extreme pressure placed upon these children to achieve, is that she believes that there is no merit in an activity in which one does not excel.
My father taught me “E for effort.” I always knew there was a difference between a measly effort and my best effort. I never got a pat on the back for doing that which was expected of me, and I do not agree with the philosophy that everyone who participates should get a trophy — that makes true achievement less meaningful. A silver medal, a bronze medal, or even an honorable mention hard-earned was worthy of praise. Still, no more was expected from me beyond my best effort, and my parents never thought it was their job to ensure that I could do no better.
As an attorney, Chua might know that many courts look to the best interests of the child when faced with domestic relations issues. As a parent, I believe the standard should be the same. Although Chua has proved herself to be devoted to her girls, by dedicating innumerable hours — day in and day out — to study with them, guide them and schlep them to lessons and recitals, her methods were overly harsh. Chua recently told me that she wishes she had allowed her daughters a little more choice, had not been so harsh and had not been so overconfident with all her decisions.
Despite her children’s public support, “tiger parenting” can have detrimental effects on the parent/child relationship. Waldman cited higher suicide rates among Asian-American girls, and I have a friend who chose to move across the country to escape her “tiger mom.”
New York Magazine’s Po Bronson claims that American parents will use the tiger methodology, but adapt it in a more moderate manner, to create the uberachievers their children are destined to become. Bronson believes that American parents have just been waiting for permission to toughen up. Bronson may be correct about the generation of parents who got all their cues from books like “What To Expect When You’re Expecting,” followed by “What To Expect the First Year.”
Since I did not have the benefit of “What to Expect: The Toddler Years” in 1992, I was convinced that I would be looking for advice for years two to 30. I hope other parents come to the conclusion I did: parenting is trial by fire. Although it is comforting to commiserate with others and to seek the guidance of more-seasoned parents, invariably, good common sense is the best guide.
In her book, Chua seemed to ascribe to a very narrow definition of parental success. It is not all about the grades, the Ivy League and the glory. I beam with pride faster when someone tells me that my daughter “is a mensch,” than when they act impressed by the school she might attend or the award she won.
My father used to say he was “the Tsar,” because he acted as a benevolent dictator. Based on her account, Amy Chua could have used a little more benevolence.
Risa C. Doherty is an attorney and freelance writer, who encourages her children to reach their potential and tries to suppress the occasional urge to become a “Tiger Mom.”
Copyright 2011 by Risa C. Doherty